Cogswell College 2011 Commencement Keynote Address
Following is the text of the May 14 Commencement Keynote Address delivered by Douglas Rand, Policy Advisor to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Mr. Rand is a leading architect of the Startup America initiative and other federal policies to promote entrepreneurship. His appearance coincided with the first phase of the College's launch of its highly innovative entrepreneurship degree programs for undergraduate and community college transfer students, as well as its first Masters degree program.
Click to play Commencement Keynote Address
Thank you for that kind introduction. And thank you to Cogswell College for the privilege of speaking today - thanks to President Haskell, the faculty, the trustees, and all of the students and family members gathered here to celebrate.
Cogswell College has a long history of inspiring innovation and entrepreneurship, going all the way back two centuries to Henry Cogswell. My dad happens to be a dentist and my mom is an entrepreneur, so I'm delighted that your college was founded by an enterprising dentist. While everyone else was obsessed with panning for gold, Henry Cogswell focused on unmet customer needs: Lots of miners means lots of imperiled teeth. Also, buying up real estate was a wise move.
Today, as Cogswell College continues to blaze a trail in entrepreneurship education and experiential learning, let's talk about what entrepreneurship means for the United States, and what it can mean for each of you.
I'm extremely fortunate to be at the White House in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, where I get to wake up every morning and work on Startup America - a national initiative to celebrate, inspire and accelerate high-growth entrepreneurship across the country.
This initiative is a top priority for President Obama, who said this when we launched in January:
"Entrepreneurs embody the promise of America: the idea that if you have a good idea and are willing to work hard and see it through, you can succeed in this country. And in fulfilling this promise, entrepreneurs also play a critical role in expanding our economy and creating jobs."
This Administration understands that entrepreneurs are the main drivers of job creation in the United States. Everyone knows that big businesses employ a lot of people, and so do small businesses, but on net, nearly all new jobs come from young businesses striving to get bigger.
Plenty of these job-creating entrepreneurs are here in Silicon Valley, of course, but you can find them all across the country - in urban and rural areas, in technology and non-tech industries alike. The great majority of firms on the Inc. 500 list of fastest-growing companies are not in Silicon Valley, and they're not especially high-tech. So our economic recovery isn't solely in the hands of Facebook and Twitter. When it comes to job creation, a bunch of quiet doubles and triples can be as valuable to the nation as a well-known home run.
This Administration also understands that startups hit above their weight on innovation. A hungry entrepreneur tends to be more willing to take risks than a big established company looking to protect business as usual. So it's entrepreneurs who will create breakthrough products and services that allow the United States to compete and win in the global economy - breakthroughs in industries like information technology, biotechnology, and clean energy.
As a commencement speaker, I know that I'm supposed to talk about nothing but blue skies and bright horizons and the world being your oyster. You are indeed entering an economy that's now growing and adding jobs, but we're still recovering from the after-effects of the worst recession since the Great Depression. There are still millions of Americans looking for work. That's got to be weighing on you right now.
The good news is that successful high-growth companies, like the famous names on the Fortune 500 list, were more likely than not launched during a recession or bear market. So even during today's challenging economic climate, some of tomorrow's biggest job creators are just getting their start. Yes, I'm talking about you.
And you don't have to build a Fortune 500 company to be a hero. Again, America needs lots of doubles and triples as much as home runs. And you're in very elite company just by looking to get on base. Guess how many Americans are helming a startup that expects to create at least 20 jobs within the next 5 years? It's about 1.5% of working adults, and that number has been pretty steady over the last couple of decades.
We know that together, these high-expectation startups generate a massively disproportionate share of net new jobs in the U.S. If we could turn that dial up just a little bit, and get more people off the bench and starting successful new companies, imagine how much faster we'd get this country back to full employment.
What makes entrepreneurs so valuable to society is their fundamentally restlessness - they won't be satisfied unless their companies keep growing, year after year. If we're going to fulfill the President's vision of winning the future, we as a nation must be restless, too. America is still hands-down the best place in the world to be an entrepreneur - but like any good entrepreneur, we can't rest on our laurels.
So when we launched the Startup America initiative just over 90 days ago, the President issued a call to action to both the federal government and the private sector, challenging all of us to dramatically accelerate the success of America's high-growth entrepreneurs.
This isn't remotely a job for government alone, so groups from all over the private sector have joined together to form the Startup America Partnership - an independent alliance of entrepreneurs, foundations, corporations, and nonprofits dedicated to doing more than business as usual to deliver value to startups. This Partnership is chaired by Steve Case, the co-founder of AOL, and it's helmed by Scott Case (no relation!), the co-founder of Priceline. It's independent of the government, and it's off and running, already mobilizing well over $400 million worth of services from Google, Amex, HP, and many others, available exclusively to entrepreneurs. So if you're starting a company, make sure you check out the Startup America Partnership.
At the same time, the Obama Administration is committed to doing its part, by taking concrete steps to create the right environment for high-growth entrepreneurship.
Agencies across the federal government are working together on five major policy priorities: expand access to capital, remove unnecessary barriers facing startups, increase connections to high-quality mentors, accelerate research breakthroughs from the lab to the marketplace, and unleash new market opportunities for entrepreneurs.
That's a lot of policy, and I could talk to you all afternoon about tax credits and capital gains exemptions and special patent licensing programs, but most of you are 22 years old, so let's skip right to something relevant.
This past week, the President stood at the border in El Paso and reaffirmed the Administration's commitment to fixing our broken immigration system—and that includes expanding the nation's pool of talented high-skilled graduates in science and technology. We already educate the world's best and brightest, and it makes no sense to send them home to compete against us.
So two days ago, we announced that a lot more science and technology degree programs will qualify graduates here on student visas for an Optional Practical Training extension - that means an extra 17 months in the U.S. to get work training or start a new company. For the first time, if you're from another country and you major in digital communications, animation, interactive technology, video graphics, or special effects, you can take advantage of this extra time in the U.S. after you graduate.
And for each and every one of you thinking of starting your own company right now, here's some more good news: Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, you can stay on your parents' health insurance plan until you're 26. And by that time, you'll be able to buy affordable coverage of your own through one of the health insurance exchanges that opens for business in 2014.
Once people aren't tied to their employers any more for health coverage, who knows how many will march out of their cubicles and launch a new startup? That's right - among its many other underappreciated virtues, Obamacare may turn out to be the most pro-entrepreneurial legislation in a generation.
Entrepreneurship and opportunity
Even with a safety net, entrepreneurs choose to sacrifice certainty and security in pursuit of greater expectations. Most of you are in your 20s - and this is the very best time in your life to take smart risks. Best case scenario, you're massively successful relatively soon. Worst case scenario, you get to experience a noble failure, and you're extremely well-prepared for the next great endeavor.
Step one is finding a problem that matters, and that you care about solving. Step two is actually solving it, better than everyone else has done before. Sometimes everyone else doesn't realize that they're suffering from a lack of effort or imagination.
There's a not-very-funny joke that economists like to tell, which goes something like this: An economist walks down the street with her granddaughter, who suddenly cries out: "Grandma, look! Someone left a $100 bill on the sidewalk!" The economist immediately responds, "That's impossible - this is a world of perfect efficiency, so if someone left a $100 bill on the ground, someone else would have picked it up already." And off they go, without breaking their stride.
Of course, this is not a world of perfect efficiency - there are plenty of $100 bills littering the sidewalk, hiding in plain sight, waiting for someone to notice them sitting there. That's what entrepreneurs do - recognize opportunities, undaunted by the fact that nobody else has seen them yet.
Let's be clear, though: A lot of entrepreneurs fail. That's the way it has to be - if the opportunities were as obvious as an actual $100 bill, they really would have been snapped up already.
Failing is not inherently bad. For our society, we need lots of failures to sort out what works in the marketplace. Even for individuals, failure can be good - you learn way more from actual mistakes than from roads not taken.
And what makes America special is we're remarkably tolerant of failure - especially here in Silicon Valley.
The key is to fail fast, and for the right reasons - because the technology didn't work out, for example, not because the team got in a fight or customer demand was nonexistent all along.
Even if you're doing everything right, it takes a lot of bad ideas and constant iteration to zero in on what works. We have this romantic idea that entrepreneurship is all about the eureka moment, but Thomas Edison said it best: "None of my inventions came by accident. I see a worthwhile need to be met and I make trial after trial until it comes. What it boils down to is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration."
Which leads to two profound conclusions:
First: For the sake of those around him, Edison should have started by inventing deodorant.
And perhaps more importantly: extraordinary innovation comes not from a brilliant flash of insight, but from constant experimentation and relentless execution.
To take one example close to home: Who would have thought that one movie studio could create 11 financial and critical hits in a row, including many of the highest-grossing movies of all time? That used to sound impossible, but that's what Pixar did. Not by magic or pure luck - but by focusing on a great story as much as great technology, and by throwing away a lot of sub-par ideas in order to discover the best ones.
Advice for graduates
Of course, not everyone graduating today is going to immediately go out and start a new company. So I'd be remiss as a commencement speaker if I didn't attempt to provide some advice that applies to everyone.
No matter what career you're about to embark upon, no matter what tasks are at hand, here are three essentials that ought to make you more successful. Apparently someone else already claimed "GTL," so instead let's go with "GTP":
And be patient.
These may sound like obvious directives, but I think you'll find that fulfilling them is a worthwhile daily challenge.
First: Be a good person.
Or, as my grandmother would say, "Be a mensch!"
The term "team player" has become a cliche, but I think it actually means something - not merely refraining from antisocial behavior, but actively working for the success of the whole team, not just yourself. If someone needs your help in a pinch, be generous. If someone is generous to you, be grateful. And never, ever send an email in anger. This is just the workplace version of the Golden Rule - treat others like you'd want to be treated.
Second: Be tireless in doing great work.
Or, as my grandmother would ask at the end of any given day, "Did you accomplish?"
Doing great work means seeing every task, large or small, not as another box to check or another chore to slog through, but as an opportunity to excel. Be creative, be meticulous, and when you're done with one project, immediately ask for more. While others are prone to just phoning it in, you'll be establishing a reputation as someone who knows how to execute.
And third: Be patient.
Or, as my grandmother would insist, "Remember that no experience is wasted."
It's rare to stumble onto a dream job straight out of college. There will be scut work. There will be errands to run and coffee to make and innumerable other less-than-glamorous tasks that will be tempting to view as indignities. But in the not-too-long run, great work by good people tends to get rewarded.
I've seen your generation accused of being entitled - you know the complaint: "Kids these days, with their iPhones and their Facebooks and their immediate gratification - they think they deserve to get the world on a silver platter..."
That's not fair, of course - first of all, it's silly to generalize about a whole generation, and second, I suspect that every generation loves to complain about the generation that's younger and more attractive.
But in any event, be sure to prove the naysayers wrong - you understand that the world owes you nothing, that it's a privilege to have the opportunity to prove yourself, and that being in the right place at the right time takes hard work. And even if what you're working on today isn't quite what you're gunning to do tomorrow, remember that every experience can teach you something that comes in handy later on.
So those are my pieces of advice for you as you make the transition from college to the so-called real world. GTP: Be good, be tireless, and be patient. You'll probably find that these three things make you a surprisingly rare and desirable creature.
I'd like to close with an insight from biology. When you learn the history of life on Earth, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that it didn't have to turn out this way. We'd like to think that humans are the inevitable pinnacle of evolution, but if a meteor hadn't smacked into the planet 65 million years ago, this might still be a world dominated by dinosaurs, with just a few inconsequential mammals scurrying underfoot.
Go back even just 100 years, and sneeze, and then return to 2011 - nearly everyone alive today would be a completely different person. What does the 20th century look like without Bill Gates or Steve Jobs? Without Jonas Salk or Rosa Parks? Would we still end up with personal computers and a polio vaccine and a civil rights movement? Probably, eventually - but with a completely different cast of characters, who knows how much faster or slower these achievements would have arrived?
It's dizzying once you start to think of history as a flexible thing, subject to infinite contingencies, accidents and acts of will. There's an alternate version of the world where clean technology has already been widely deployed, and we didn't wait this long to get serious. And there's a version of the world that experienced violence and destruction far worse than what we've known. Anything is possible, for better or for worse - your job is to bend things for the better.
Congratulations to each of you, and to all of the family members and loved ones who helped you reach this moment. This country and this planet need your considerable talents, your entrepreneurial energy, and your capacity to bring innovation to every new challenge. You will see the world with new eyes, revealing opportunities that were invisible or ignored, and seizing those opportunities with all of the determination and decency that you've learned here. You are the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things. Thank you in advance for all that you're about to accomplish...
May 14, 2011